Officially, Indy native Eric Gordon is listed as questionable for tonight’s game against the Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse, according to Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times. Nobody is chomping at the bit to get on the floor in Indianapolis more than Gordon, who was 2007’s Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana. The team is being sensibly cautious with Gordon because a strained groin has great potential for re-aggrevation and the Clippers can ill-afford to have Eric in and out of the lineup or at limited capacity this season.
The Clippers have logged a 3-5 record during Gordon’s absence and, the Denver game excepted, haven’t looked good during that stretch. Spacing has been a real problem at times — something you’d expect when Gordon isn’t on the floor. Rasual Butler had a prolific game from long distance against Denver, but apart from that, he’s struggled, largely because he’s not, for the lack of a better term, a “leading wing.” Since he’s not a threat off the dribble, Butler has trouble working on the strong side. Defenses can crowd him on the line, fully knowing that he isn’t a threat to blow by his perimeter defender. If Butler is able to find daylight, he has neither the handle nor the athleticism to make plays.
What does this have to do with Eric? Gordon’s return allows Butler return to his natural habitat, the weak side corner, where he’s far more valuable. For one, Butler’s presence stretches the defense because he has to be respected on the arc. This gives a triple threat like Eric room to get from point A to point B without running into a scrum of defenders. If the weak side defender collapses on Eric or Al, the pass goes to the corner. If Butler has a clean look, then he takes it. If not, there’s another pass — maybe it’s to Chris who, in the chaos, has moved to an open spot from 15-to-18, or maybe it’s to Al, who has learned that he’s far more effective if he’s moving off the ball and toward the basket.
Whether Eric returns tonight or not, here are a few things we’d like to see from a healthy Clippers offense:
Moving the PNR for Baron Davis closer to the elbow
Monday night’s debacle aside, Baron has demonstrated more discipline in passing up shots from the stratosphere. Still, the temptation is always there. In screen/roll situations, how about setting the pick closer to the basket, at 19 feet rather than 24 feet? This will do a couple of things. First, if Baron has the urge to shoot coming off the action, at least he’s taking a higher percentage shot. Second, that action will draw defenses inside. Not necessarily the best thing for Chris Kaman, but very good for Eric Gordon. Baron is still one of the best half-court passers in the game. If he can kick a cross-court pass to Eric on the right wing, that will give Eric even more room to drive or shoot. And if the defense stays home on Eric, Baron has more room to attack.
Against smaller teams, give Al Thornton a few minutes at the 4
How satisfying has it been to watch Al refashion his game over the past couple of weeks? After Monday’s win over Minnesota, Al has officially attempted more “close shots” than “jump shots” this season — this coming off a 2008-09 campaign during which 64 percent of his attempts from the field were jumpers. His true shooting percentage — 50.7 percent for his career — has ballooned to 56.1 percent! He’s also earning an extra FTA per game.
Did you know that Al’s PER last season while playing the 4 was 17.7? Given how Gordon and Butler can stretch the floor as a wing tandem, let’s see Al work in the post more against teams with second-generation power forwards. With the defense stretched, he’ll have room to work down low, and if he can run a PNR with Baron or Sebastian, he might even be able to draw a small in a mismatch (something, incidentally, the Clippers need to work on). Now, Mike Dunleavy would have to be selective because the flip side of that high PER for Al at the 4 last season is that he yielded his counterparts at the power forward spot a PER of 19.1 last season. In addition, the Clippers have a nice stable of backup big men like Craig Smith and DeAndre Jordan who need minutes — to say nothing of Blake Griffin’s return. Still, a 2-3-4 combo of Gordon-Butler-Thornton could potentially do some powerful things on the court.
Gordon-Kaman 2-man game, again, again, and again
It’s simply one of the best small-big combos in the game right now, and one of the reasons that the Clips’ starting lineups — with either Butler and Thornton at the 3 — beat up some pretty stiff competition during the season’s opening couple of weeks. Take a look at Chris Kaman’s “5 man units” and you’ll see that he’s exponentially more effective when he’s on the floor with Gordon. Force a defense to choose between Gordon and Kaman and good things are going to happen offensively. Post, pass out, repost, pass out/pick-and-pop/work the mismatch. These two created beautiful music together the over the first seven games and we’ll start hearing those melodies again when Eric gets back on the floor.
A little more restraint with those perimeter traps
With Gordon, the Clippers have a pretty good base defense, particularly with Butler on the floor. They also have something very few teams have — two legitimate shot-blockers. Although there will always be a few point guards who demand a trap off the pick-and-roll, it might be wise to hedge more often. In some 1-3 situations, the Clippers can afford to switch because Butler has the length to pester PGs and Baron has the strength to deal with small forwards — or at least stall them until the defense recovers. In any event, the interior is well accounted for because Camby and Kaman lie in wait. By trapping less potent point guards, the Clippers end up with Kaman where he’s least valuable, along the arc. In short, the Clippers will always have good basket protection — unless they choose not to.